Monday, January 24, 2011

Buddha vs. the New Atheists


The lovely image above of "[a]n offering of rice... left in a 'spirit house' in a Laotian town" graces Buddhist ag­nos­tic Stephen T. Asma's article arguing that "the wacky, su­per­sti­tious, cloud-cuck­oo-land forms of re­li­gion... should be cherished and preserved" — The New Athe­ists' Nar­row Worldview.

"Many of the new athe­ists have rec­og­nized that Bud­dhism doesn't quite be­long with the oth­er re­li­gious tar­gets, and they re­serve a vague re­spect for its philosoph­i­cal core," the author writes. "I'm glad. They're right to do so. But two days in any Bud­dhist coun­try will pain­ful­ly dem­on­strate to its West­ern fans that Bud­dhism is an e­lab­o­rate, su­per­nat­u­ral, devotional re­li­gion as well."

Later, he continues, "Con­trary to the progress-based sto­ry the West tells it­self, an­i­mis­tic ex­pla­na­tions of one's dai­ly ex­pe­ri­ence may be ev­ery bit as em­piri­cal and rational as West­ern science, if we take a clos­er look at life in the de­vel­op­ing world." He reminds us that in "places where lat­er re­li­gions like Buddhism and Roman Ca­thol­i­cism en­joy for­mal rec­og­ni­tion as na­tion­al faiths, much old­er forms of animism constitute the dai­ly con­cerns and rit­u­als of the peo­ple."

Of course, there is much with which to disagree in Prod. Asma's article. As much as we might question "the progress-based sto­ry the West," the idea that "an­i­mis­tic ex­pla­na­tions of one's dai­ly ex­pe­ri­ence may be ev­ery bit as em­piri­cal and rational as West­ern science" is not that convincing, especially from a fellow who "find[s] much of the horse­men's cri­tiques [of monotheistic religion] to be healthy." Still, it is refreshing to read a lampooning of the "best-sell­ing athe­ists [who] are em­brac­ing their 'dan­gerous' sta­tus and dar­ing be­liev­ers to match their for­mi­da­ble philo­soph­i­cal acu­men" as "sol­diers of rea­son."

A couple of ideas come to mind. First is Korean novelist Hahn Moo-suk's reminder that this blog's namesake, Matteo Ricci, S.J., "publicly announced that he had come to China to supplement Confucian belief, and to attack the absurdity of Buddhism," as she said in her novel Encounter. And then, in defense of animism, which the author calls "the Rod­ney Dan­ger­field of re­li­gions," Rod Dreher's retelling of "linguist Daniel Everett's experience living deep in the Amazon rainforest with a primitive tribe" comes to mind — All That is Seen and Unseen.

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Omnes Sancti et Sanctæ Coreæ, orate pro nobis.